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When Living to See 25 Is Considered a Victory


I'm having nightmares, homicidal fantasies. I wake up strangling and dangling in my bedsheets. I call the nurse cause it hurts to reminisce. How did it come to this? I wish they didn't miss.

--From Tupac Shakur's "Only God Can Judge Me"


Even in his most self-aggrandizing and fatalistic moments, rapper Tupac Shakur embodies both the success and pain of his generation of black men. And in that cry for a release from the stress of this world, Shakur is openly wishing that the five shots plugged into his tattooed body last year had killed him.

"Don't give me another day," he urges. "I don't want it."

Like Shakur, who shares my birth date and troubled teenage years filled with scuffles, I'm turning 25. And though a quarter of a century definitely isn't the last stop career- or lifewise, I never thought I would make it. Because an unfortunate but real consensus among many brothers I know is that 25 has become like hump day for young black men in this country.

Growing up in the increasingly violent streets of America is tough enough for anyone, but it has become too often deadly for young black men. For us, homicide is the leading cause of death; we are eight times more likely to be killed than white men. And currently close to one in three brothers is in jail or being supervised by the criminal justice system.

As a teenager I discovered the constant dehumanization--physical harassment from some police officers and higher odds of catching a bullet--that goes with having dark skin in America. I eventually just wondered when and where the bullet would catch up with me.

Supposedly if you're lucky you survive the statistics: miss the jail time, stay in school instead of hustling drugs, dodge the trap of early fatherhood and actually find a job as unemployment engulfs your brethren.

But even if you do slip by the coroner's office and choose college or another legal path, do you still take the mental baggage with you? Do you still, like Shakur, "wish they didn't miss"?


First, let's lay the cards on the table. I have never been convicted of a felony and by age 23 I had earned two college degrees. I'm not swiping that nice color TV in your living room while you're at work and except for a few temper tantrums about increasing taxes and other Gemini bad habits, I think I'm pretty sane.

So on paper I don't fit the image of the mean-faced black men TV newscasts and even this newspaper show daily. But I feel their desperation.

Khalid Shah, who founded the Stop the Violence Foundation and counsels young black males, said even with strong parents and positive alternatives to crime, most can't escape the street-corner madness just down the street.

"Without a doubt the environment smells of death," Shah said from his L.A. office. "The foremost thing on their minds is making sure they don't get shot. Everything in our culture from music to television adds to it. A lot of them don't think they will make it to that age. How can you expect them to think anything else?"


For months I've been agonizing over my birthday, wondering if I too have that same fatalism running through my blood. Friends have told me to relax and not over-analyze or put too much weight on this singular day. Use this article to talk about all the positives of your 25 years on Earth.

But as much as I know the cliche is overused, my heart and my head can't help but bring me to the same conclusion: Many of my close friends have been killed, are in jail or so despondent and self-pitying that I wonder if anything could pull them out of their dungeons.

And when your life is filled with reminders that you are a target, it's hard not to believe somebody is out to get you. Pundits like to counter that only those who break the law are at risk of getting smoked or being put in a life-threatening situation.

That's not true.

Three times in the past three years, I've had guns pointed in my face. Each time I thought my day had finally come. I braced myself and for a moment, like Tupac, welcomed the bullets. And while it's become popular lately to discount racism as paranoid whining, I can't forget the six times I was stopped in just two months on the streets and freeways of this city.

Most disturbing, though, was when one of my co-workers, only 22, was killed last year. His 20-year-old wife has been charged. Even more painful than the agony of losing an always-smiling Ethan was the reminder that even young black lives on the upswing can be taken away in the blink of an eye.

And just two weeks ago, Ennis Beley, a 15-year-old darling of the media who had used his camera to document the madness of his South-Central neighborhood, was shot to death. At age 12 Beley had predicted he would be killed by age 25.

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